An Accidental Studio
With British cinema now in rude health, it’s easy to forget just how bleak things were in the ’80s. At the start of the decade that gave us Duran Duran, Pac-Man and the Walkman, the British film industry was basically on its backside, with Brits averaging a meagre 0.4 visits a year and just over 20 British films being made annually (today it’s well over 90).
Accidental Studio, a new documentary about HandMade Films, the film studio co-founded by George Harrison, shows how the former Beatle helped revitalise British cinema during this period by bankrolling unconventional masterpieces such as Monty Pyton’s The Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I.
Although it uses a fairly typical talking heads set-up, which mixes new interviews with the likes of Terry Gilliam, Richard E Grant and Michael Palin with archive footage of Harrison and Bob Hoskins, Accidental Studio is a fun history lesson that leaves you with the feeling Harrison was incredibly uncomfortable being a businessman.
HandMade Films grew from his hobby and a chance to have some fun with the Pythons into a bit of a corporate monster largely due to co-founder Denis O’Brien, who pushed the studio away from quirky British comedies and into certified disasters such as epic Madonna flop Shanghai Surprise.
The film works best when it considers how the waters of independent studios are often sullied by more sinister capitalistic forces. O’Brien is very much presented as the villain of the piece, who tried to sabotage Withnail & I while pushing a confused Harrison into far more commercial film-making. In archive footage, he even concedes: “Managing a film studio is a constant battle between the artist and the money, and I don’t like being the money.”
But even if Harrison was indifferent to the business of film, it’s clear that his generosity helped to create some of the most interesting British films of the time. This documentary should at the very least inspire a new generation to reassess the studio’s legacy, while hopefully inspiring them to revisit lost HandMade Films’ classics such as Powwow Highway and A Private Function. In a hilarious anecdote, it’s revealed someone received a credit as ‘bucket boy’ for the latter film. His unfortunate job? To pick up the pig actor’s poo throughout the shoot.
An Accidental Studio takes a while to get going, only really coming alive when we start to get a sense of the politics that go hand-in-hand with producing a film. But it is a thrill to be immersed in an era of filmmaking so far removed from endless superhero sequels, where character actors like Bob Hoskins were allowed to shine and original ideas about time travelling teenagers somehow dominated the box office. HandMade Films only operated as a studio for just over 10 years, but its impact on British cinema will last forever.
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